Awesome Audra: A Chat with Audra McDonald

audra-mcdonaldLuminous soprano and Broadway sensation Audra McDonald, one of the finest actresses/vocalists of her generation, will be in concert Friday, March 1 in celebration of the Schuster Center’s 10th anniversary.  McDonald, 42, has received five Tony Awards for her outstanding work in “Carousel,” “Master Class,” “Ragtime,” “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Porgy and Bess.” She has also been nominated for her splendid performances in “Marie Christine” and “110 in the Shade,” and memorably appeared in Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “Henry IV” and the Public Theater’s “Twelfth Night.” In addition to portraying Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC’s “Private Practice” for four seasons, she has been featured in television adaptations of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Annie” and “Wit,” receiving an Emmy nomination for the latter. She also won two Grammy Awards for “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.”

In advance of her highly anticipated concert, accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time since 2005, the very engaging McDonald discussed her distinguished career and future plans.

Q: On Feb. 11 you were honored by the Drama League for your contributions to Broadway. How did it feel to be saluted in such a grand fashion by so many of your colleagues?

A: It was amazing! I wept, laughed and screamed the entire evening. To see people I love, people I adore, people I’ve worked with, people I want to work with attending the event was really overwhelming.

Q: When you reflect on your legacy, particularly your multiple Tony victories and nominations, does it seem like a blur? What does it all mean to you at this point in your career?

A: It does seem like a blur. When you’re in a show, your mind is on the show and you’re living another life on stage. Then the Tonys come, it happens, and then it’s gone. You’re a pumpkin again. But when I accumulate it all it feels like a big, fantastic blur. The biggest memories I have of the Tonys is the emotions of how it all felt. And at the end of it, you still have to go on with your daily life.

Q: But when you look at your hardware, your five Tonys, does it give you greater motivation? You could certainly win five more Tonys in the future.

A: I’m not done yet. There is still more theater I want to do. I don’t ever pursue projects looking for Tonys, but this is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 9 years old. For me, it’s all about looking for the next challenge. For me, the Tonys represent an incredible honor and something for me to be grateful for, but also something that reminds me that I’m lucky to do what I love and I must continue to grow, give back, and continue to live in the world that is theater.

Q: Assessing your many roles, which character or characters were the most challenging?
A: Without a doubt, it would be Bess, particularly in terms of stamina. To be able to sustain the performance and make that journey eight times a week was the most challenging. The hardest character to grasp was Ruth in “A Raisin in the Sun.” I had a hard time succumbing to her sadness and world-weariness.

Q: Do you have any dream roles? Are there roles you haven’t tackled that you would like to pursue?
A: I would like to do more Shakespeare, particularly playing Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra.” As far as musical theater, as long as a role scares me, challenges me, I’m completely open to whatever comes along.

060704Celebs52ARQ: Would you consider starring in another Michael John LaChuisa (“Marie Christine”) musical?

A: Of course. There is some stuff in the pipeline with him. He’s such a prolific writer.

Q: Are there any directors or performers you would like to work with that you haven’t yet?

A: I would like to work with Bartlett Sher (“The Light in the Piazza”), who has been doing fantastic work, as well as Joe Mantello (“Wicked”). I would also like to work with Dan Sullivan (“Twelfth Night”), Lonny Price (“110 In the Shade”), Diane Paulus (“Porgy and Bess”) and Kenny Leon (“A Raisin in the Sun”) again. All of them are directors I admire greatly.

Q: Would you ever consider directing or producing?

A: Maybe directing, but I need to build my confidence. I just started teaching some master classes and really felt quite challenged and fulfilled by it. I would not count out directing in the future.

Q: What are your views on the current state of Broadway? Are improvements needed? What shows are you recommending to friends?

A: I think it’s a very fertile time on Broadway. For a while it seemed as if Broadway was only for superstars and “face projects.” But I feel there is a lot of good stuff out there that isn’t necessarily a star vehicle. For instance, “Once,” which is a tiny little show which had some recognition from the movie but it didn’t have stars in it and took Broadway by storm. There’s room for all of the above, but as long as there are new musicals being produced, and Broadway continues to replenish and nurture, I’m happy.

Q: You have been a trailblazer for non-traditional casting from Broadway to television. Would you like to see more non-traditional casting implemented?

A: Always. I understand that in some cases, like historical pieces, it doesn’t work, but whenever it can be utilized it’s a great thing.

Q: I remember many years ago you were being considered to star in a Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady.”

A: Yes, but some things come into fruition and some things don’t. And now I’m too old!

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Q: What words of advice do you have for aspiring performers?

A: Always say yes to your artistic instincts. Don’t ever say no to yourself. If you think there’s a role you can play go out and audition for it, work on it, study it. There will be enough people in the business that will say no to you. You cannot be one of those people. Also, I’d advise anyone to get on stage anywhere. It doesn’t have to be on Broadway, but your local church or dinner theater. Get used to being in front of a live audience, which is an experience that is the same as being on Broadway or in your school musical. The dynamic is the same and very important.

Q: You are currently working on your fifth studio album released by Nonesuch Records. What should your fans expect this time around? Will it be musical theater-heavy or are you aiming for more eclectic selections?
A: The new album will have more full-throated singing. It will be Audra full-throttle! My last album was a bit more contemplative, but the new album will have some wonderful older songs, newer songs, and songs from composers I just haven’t sung a lot of like Kander and Ebb.

Q: It’s wonderful to know you will be appearing once more in Dayton at the Schuster Center. What will your program consist of?

A: It’s going to be an eclectic mix, but it’s always nice when you can take advantage of performing with an entire orchestra, which is the case in Dayton. I’ll be singing songs by Stephen Sondheim, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bock and Harnick, Kander and Ebb, Leslie Bricusse, and Henry Mancini among others. It’s going to be a great concert.

A gala concert starring Audra McDonald will be presented Friday, March 1 at 8 p.m. at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets., Dayton. Tickets are $40-$90. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit

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avatar About Russell Florence, Jr.

Russell Florence, Jr. is a member of The American Theatre Critics Association and The Drama League. In addition to his role as arts and culture editor of Dayton City Paper and theater critic for Dayton City Paper and Impact Weekly, he served as a Dayton Daily News freelance writer and editorial page contributor. He has also written features for such theater publications as Spotlight Ohio and The Sondheim Review. He attended over 30 Broadway/Off-Broadway productions during the 2014-15 season. Overall, he has seen over 400 Broadway shows.